Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Creative Writing Graduates and Their Desires: Will They Kill Us All?

The Irish Times, my country's newspaper of record, has published a piece about how writers are increasingly turning to teaching on MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses to supplement their dwindling income from publishing actual FA. The article itself is even-handed, which means it needs to engage with the voices who are anti-MFAs, anti-teaching-of-writing, and anti-writers-complaining-that-they-can't-make-a-living-writing.

Essentially, society expects writers not to behave, or hold expectations, like other workers. And I am deliberately saying workers and not professionals because the issue is not about whether a profession is treated with respect, it's about whether work is treated ethically.

What is actually wrong with someone trained in a profession choosing to teach it to others if they can't find sufficient paid work during a period of economic crisis in their industry? If an out-of-work computer programmer scored a teaching gig, would there be articles in the national press about whether 'truly innovative' computer programming could be taught, wondering how many of the students were going to found the new Twitter or write the new Java?

Writing is mystical and special, and because it is an Art, it should not be sullied with teaching. Writers should sit at home with a glass of whiskey or a pot of coffee (aside: I hate both) and take dictation from the muses. There are intangible and probably unteachable elements to writing (voice springs to mind - I didn't know I had one until an agent commented on it and I realised I knew exactly what she meant), but then no one taught Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates how to found their empires either. They taught the tools, and then let their students fly. Who is to say that creative writing graduates, who "(. . .so the complaint goes) will tend to churn out well-crafted, imitative fiction that plays impeccably by pre-existing rules"  according to some, won't similarly take flight?

The article goes on to say that the "more cynical reader may be tempted to break out the tiny violin at these tales of woe from unemployed creative-writing graduates. . . " I wonder about these cynical readers (and it's clear from the tone of the article that the author of the piece has little truck with them either). Why is it so wrong for a graduate to be sad that they cannot make a living doing the work of their choice? Because lots of people in less-exciting careers have the same issue? Indeed they do, and they are bitching about it just as much as writers are, as they have every right to. But no one is breaking out the tiny violins for them - only the big, proper violins, the front pages of the national press and half of the internet will do.

Creative writing graduates who can't find work in their field are entitled to be unhappy about this, just as all graduates and non-graduates are. They are entitled to look for other opportunities related to what they love (like teaching), just as all graduates and non-graduates are. And when they can't find those opportunities, like every person who has ever switched fields out of necessity, they can then spend the rest of their lives tackling questions in job interviews about when they're planning to leave to pursue the thing they really want to do. Welcome to the twenty-first century job market. It's tough out there.

Why the intolerance for writers who are unhappy that they can't make their living as writers? I have friends who have had to quit law because it wasn't bringing enough money to support them, and no one is saying that they ought to suck it up and quit moaning because the time and effort they invested in their career has come to nothing. And I am a helluva lot more likely (touch wood) to need a book this week than a barrister.

Perhaps because we enjoy rain and slightly gone-off biscuits, Ireland has no constitutional protection for the right to pursue happiness. The most culturally-dominant nation in the West does, though, and the concept is familiar to the entire English-speaking world and beyond. "The pursuit of happiness." We don't have a right to happiness (imagine how busy my lawyer friends would be if we had), but the right to give attaining it our best shot is certainly understood as a cultural ideal. We can go after what we want, provided it doesn't conflict with anyone else's more critical needs (my need to punch a certain member of parliament conflicts - unfortunately - with his right to not be punched in the face, for example).

Writers don't have a right to do work that they love any more than the rest of society does, but they have a right to pursue the shit out of it, and they have a right to be sad when it doesn't pan out - and a right to be sadder still when it doesn't pan out for large and systemic reasons. And they have the right to try and address that by seeking other work they like. This is a right they share with everyone else.

Why is there sympathy for builders, lawyers, accountants, engineers and architects who tried to do work they loved and found they couldn't, but not for writers?


  1. Very well said.

    Those cynical readers with their tiny violins are a lost cause anyway. They have no soul, so how can they understand creativity?

  2. Love your examples Ellen. Competition for publication is as stiff as any other career choice. And many people work two jobs to make ends meet, with one paying more than the other. Being a writer doesn't give a person a guarantee of being rich and famous.


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